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Obama sets progressive agenda in State of the Union speech

January 21, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama, undaunted by the new Republican majority in Congress, issued a sweeping challenge Tuesday night to do more for the poor and middle class and to end the nasty partisan political fight that has characterized his six years in office.

In a speech reminiscent of a campaign stump message, the president issued a broadly optimistic report about the country in his nationally televised State of the Union address to Congress. He spoke of millions of new jobs created, modestly rising wages and a stock market that has soared as the country climbed out of the Great Recession that greeted him when he took office in 2009.

And he called for a “better politics where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.”

Obama said it was time for Americans to “turn the page” on years of economic troubles, terrorism and lengthy wars, using his sixth State of the Union speech to outline new tax policies that would hit the wealthiest Americans and give breaks to the middle class.

While calling for a new era of comity, Obama outlined an agenda that showed he was not going to curtail his own plans in favor of Republican priorities. While he appealed for “better politics” in Washington and pledged to work with Republicans, the president touted bread-and-butter Democratic economic proposals and vowed to veto Republican efforts to dismantle his signature achievements — in particular his health care and financial reform laws.

“We can’t put the security of families at risk by taking away their health insurance or unraveling the new rules on Wall Street or refighting past battles on immigration when we’ve got a system to fix,” Obama said. “And if a bill comes to my desk that tries to do any of these things, I will veto it.”

“It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come,” Obama said.

The 2016 presidential election loomed over Obama’s next-to-last State of the Union address, a speech that focused on his bid to use tax policy to ease the economic woes of beleaguered low-income Americans and the country’s shrinking middle class.

Obama’s proposed increased tax rates for wealthy Americans with much of the new revenue earmarked for measures to benefit low- and middle-income earners who have seen wages stagnate for years. While he made a bold proposal, tax-averse Republicans are unlikely to act on the president’s plan.

But Obama used one of his biggest platforms, a speech that was nationally televised to tens of millions of Americans, to highlight the issue of growing economic inequality, a critical marker for the next presidential campaign that will choose his successor.

“Will we accept an economy where only a few of us do spectacularly well?” Obama asked. “Or will we commit ourselves to an economy that generates rising incomes and chances for everyone who makes the effort?”

Answering his own question, Obama said: “So the verdict is clear. Middle-class economics works. Expanding opportunity works. And these policies will continue to work, as long as politics don’t get in the way.”

The Republicans were quick to respond.

“Americans have been hurting, but when we demanded solutions, too often Washington responded with the same stale mindset that led to failed policies like Obamacare,” said new Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, referring to Obama’s health care overhaul. “It’s a mindset that gave us political talking points, not serious solutions.”

The president came out of his party’s bruising November election defeat — in which Democrats lost control of the Senate — with a surprising burst of activity and a bump in approval ratings. He has already vowed to veto seven legislative measures that are coming out of the new Republican-controlled Congress — measures ranging from approving the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to the U.S. Gulf coast to an effort to hobble his health care overhaul to budget actions that would undo his executive actions on immigration reform. He also vowed to veto and congressional attempt to impose new sanctions on Iran as negotiations proceed on neutering that country’s nuclear program and prevent development of a nuclear weapon.

While the economy dominated the president’s address, he also promoted his recent decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba and asked for a new congressional approval and funding for the military campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

“I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL,” Obama said, referring to the Islamic State group.

The president also called for legislation to guard against cyberattacks. In a rare move away from his own party, Obama renewed his call for fast-tracking free trade agreements with Asia and Europe, generating more applause from pro-trade Republicans than skeptical Democrats.

While Republicans are unlikely to pass the new tax proposals, Obama is putting the opposition in the unappealing spot of blocking measures that would offer broad economic benefits to the middle class. Obama has a strong argument in that the U.S. economy is on course for a robust recovery, but most of the benefits have not found their way to middle America. While calling for bipartisanship, Obama looks ready to continue the partisan battle with Republicans that dominated all but the first year of his presidency.

Regardless of the reticence of congressional Republicans to put a bigger tax bite on the wealthy, potential Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney already are talking openly about income inequality and the need to give lower-earning Americans more opportunities.

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